High Court Emphasizes Honest Opinion Defence in Defamation Case: The Duke of Sussex v Associated Newspapers Limited

Citation: [2023] EWHC 3120 (KB)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the recent High Court of Justice King’s Bench Division Media & Communications List case, The Duke of Sussex v Associated Newspapers Limited, significant legal principles related to defamation, particularly the defence of honest opinion under the Defamation Act 2013, were discussed. This article provides a detailed examination of the legal principles applied, directly linking them to the substantive parts of the case summary.

Key Facts

The dispute centered around an article published in the Mail on Sunday, which the Claimant, The Duke of Sussex, contended was defamatory. A primary issue was whether statements claiming the Duke had only been willing to pay for police protection after initiating judicial review proceedings could be defended as honest opinion. The Duke’s legal team aimed to strike this defence, emphasizing that he had offered to pay for this protection long before the proceedings commenced, known as the “Sandringham offer”.

The court examined several key legal principles throughout the judgement:

  1. Striking Out and Summary Judgment: The principles set forth within CPR 3.4(2)(a) and Part 24 were applied to assess whether the defence disclosed “no reasonable grounds for … defending the claim” and whether it had a “realistic as opposed to a fanciful prospect of success”.

  2. Honest Opinion Defence: Section 3 of the Defamation Act 2013 was the fulcrum for the Defendant’s position. The section outlines the conditions under which the defence of honest opinion may apply, shifting the impetus to honest belief rather than objective truth in the assertion.

  3. Freedom of Expression and Opinion: The Court underscored the importance of honest opinion as a defense being fundamental to free speech, exercising caution not to whittle it away through overly restrictive interpretations.

  4. ‘Single Fact’ Cases: The court deliberated on the concept of ‘single fact’ cases (as in Riley -v- Murray) where the honesty opinion defense rests on a single factual assertion. In such cases, if the foundational fact is incorrect, the defence may fail.

  5. Relevant Supporting Facts: The Defendant is permitted to choose which facts to present in support of the honest opinion defence. These must be true and have a logical nexus to the opinion expressed.

  6. Misleading Public Statements: The Defendant maintained that the Claimant’s publicised statements mischaracterised the judicial review issue, representing a “masterclass in the art of ‘spinning’” which the defence argued was misleading and confusing to the public.

Outcomes

The court found that the Defendant has a real prospect of successfully arguing their case based on the honest opinion defence. The case was not deemed to be a ‘single fact’ situation since there were other public statements and contextual elements at play that might support the Defendant’s contention that an honest person could have held the same opinion. Thus, the applications for striking out and summary judgment were refused.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Honourable Mr Justice Nicklin’s judgement delineates a clear stance on the robustness of the honest opinion defence within defamation law, whilst also providing definitive guidance on its applicable thresholds and constraints. This judgment underlines the necessity for claimants to meet high standards when challenging the honest opinion defence, in assertion of the broader principle of safeguarding free speech and opinion within the public domain. The decision is a manifest example of the court’s unwillingness to conflate factual accuracy with the honest belief essential to substantiating such a defense under Section 3 of the Defamation Act 2013.

Related Summaries